Longtime fans of the New Orleans Saints remember the highs and lows of the franchise’s 45-year history - particularly the many bizarre moments, plays and games they’ve witnessed over the years.
On the afternoon of Dec. 21, 2003, however, they went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a matter of minutes when the Saints were involved in one of the most unbelievable finishes in NFL history.
On Sunday, the Saints will play in Jacksonville’s EverBank Field for the first time since that day, when kicker John Carney, who nailed 628 of 638 extra-point attempts in a sparkling 24-year NFL career, missed one with no time left to hand the Jaguars a 20-19 win.
That was the low moment for the Saints that afternoon. The high came minutes earlier when they produced one of the most improbable plays in league history.
Later dubbed the “River City Relay,” it was a 75-yard touchdown that included a pass and three laterals and ended with wide receiver Jerome Pathon diving across the goal line for the score.
“It was a pretty crazy play at the end that they pulled off and executed well,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said Wednesday when asked about the wild finish.
In all, a play that began with six seconds on the clock - when Jerry Fontenot snapped the ball to Aaron Brooks - lasted 24 seconds. Brooks threw a pass to Donte Stallworth, who caught it and advanced as far as he could to the Jaguars’ 33.
Stallworth lateraled to Michael Lewis, who reached the 26 before he pitched it back to Deuce McAllister. He got to the 20, then tossed the ball across the field where Pathon caught it in stride at the 21 and raced to the end zone after a hustling Brooks supplied the final block.
But after a few minutes of jubilation, including time in which referee Gerry Austin reviewed the play, there was deflation when Carney pushed the extra point wide right - denying the Saints an overtime period and a shot to pull out a miracle win.
“We knew we had to make something spectacular happen,” Pathon said after the game.
They did, on a play named “All Go Special” in the Saints’ playbook.
Del Rio, a former Saints linebacker who was then in his first season as an NFL head coach, breathed a sigh of relief afterward.
“It just proves that every play is important in this league,” he said. “You have to play them all. The only thing missing was the band. It was kind of like the Cal game (against Stanford in 1982).”
Former Saints special teams star Fred McAfee, who was on the sideline that day, was asked Wednesday what he remembered of the unlikely finish that earned the Saints an ESPY for Best Play of 2003.
“You work on those plays, but you never know if you’re going to be in that situation,” recalled McAfee, who now works for the Saints. “We worked on that play, but it didn’t come close to how we scripted it. But it worked out.”